The day after the general election, this column quoted Churchill’s line about this not being the end, or the beginning of the end, but merely the end of the beginning. This was meant to imply that although the Conservatives had emerged victorious from a mighty struggle, the tasks that lay ahead were even more daunting.
At the time it seemed as though there would be a bit of a lull initially, as David Cameron consolidated his position and enjoyed a honeymoon period as leader of a full Conservative government after five years in coalition. Surely even his most passionate backbench detractors would give him a bit of breathing space. After all, he was clearly a major electoral asset for his party. Some of those backbenchers surely owe their place in the Commons to Cameron’s ability to combine outward affability with a willingness to rip up the political rule book in his quest for votes.
But the Conservative truce never really began. Evidently goodwill was in such short supply that there was not even time for a friendly kick-around between the trenches before the inevitable hostilities set in. And when they did begin, they came in the form of heavy bombardment rather than sniper fire.
Fox or lion?
One must presume – or at least hope – that in a court of law David Cameron would be able to provide a rational explanation for the events of the past couple of days in relation to the in-out European referendum. In the absence of such legal proceedings, the rest of us just have to guess at his intentions.
The most optimistic reading, from Cameron’s point of view, is that he was not really serious when he suggested to journalists that ministers would have to resign from the government unless they supported his EU position all the way through the impending referendum campaign.
If no-one protested, all well and good: Cameron would have ensured an iron grip over his ministerial team, probably for the rest of his term of office. If there were loud and passionate complaints from all ranks of his party, his negotiating position within the EU would actually be strengthened. He could say to his EU partners that he had done his best to smash the opposition to his moderate negotiating stance, but this approach had proved a dismal and damaging failure. So his talks with European leaders had better produce something tangible, otherwise he would be forced by his own party to advocate a Brexit in the referendum campaign.
Unfortunately, there is another interpretation: that Cameron was seriously attempting to lay down the law to his senior colleagues, and found that he had overplayed his hand.
Straight after the bell sounded for a new parliamentary term he had sprung from his stool, letting loose a flurry of punches left and right (or rather, in this case, right and further right). But he was met with a counter-barrage that sent him crawling back to his corner. Given the speed and tone of Downing Street denials, this looks the more plausible explanation.
There is no avoiding war
Since, at present, Cameron seems unlikely to be asked about this episode by a prosecuting barrister, we will probably have to wait until the publication of his memoirs to uncover his true intentions.
But if he has indeed come unstuck, all is not completely lost. He can still pretend to the UK’s EU partners that he was simply testing the water and jumped out when he found it too hot. He can then be expected to shrug and say: “You see the kind of people I have to deal with? They’re xenophobes who think Britannia still rules the waves. I am your last hope, so give me everything I want or I’ll start behaving as irrationally as the rest of my party”.
Cameron would then be faced with the unfamiliar challenge of using the truth as a negotiating tactic. For someone whose mastery of the dark arts would make Machiavelli look like a member of the Teletubbies, he should be able to pull it off. And, whether by accident or design, he is still the person who will be able to speak most authoritatively to the British public when the referendum campaign begins. However, his authority at home has clearly been shaken sooner than expected: and this column can say: “We told you so”.
On a very different note, it was difficult to detect profound depth of feeling in Cameron’s response to the tragic death of Charles Kennedy. Perhaps this is because, while Kennedy never impugned the honour of his political opponents, Cameron has retained in his cabinet a person (Iain Duncan Smith) who once attacked Kennedy over his stance on the Iraq war.
For those who bemoan the inexorable advance of “career politicians” who lack any meaningful experience of life outside Westminster, Kennedy’s passing is a very regrettable corrective. Kennedy himself was the very epitome of the career politician, since he entered parliament at the age of 23 after an exposure to the “real world” which consisted only of a brief engagement with BBC journalism.
By contrast, Iain Duncan Smith was a soldier for almost six years before plumping for a political career. Readers will have their own preferences between these two characters as dining companions – or political decision makers.
For all that he did a stint in public relations, David Cameron – like Kennedy – is a rare example of a career politician with considerable personal qualities. For that matter, Machiavelli himself belongs in that category. Their self-adopted tasks are very different: while Machiavelli merely wanted to unite Italy, Cameron has to somehow try to keep the Conservative Party together. The only thing in his favour is his abundant supply of the quality which Machiavelli signally lacked – luck.